Arts & Crafts, fond memories, Rogue Brothers Inc. and baroque paintings
Alec was sitting on a comfortable chair, on the terrace of a nice Café. Maurice had gone out for lunch with someone and would meet him there for a drink. Alec had fallen asleep again after Maurice left, skipped lunch in favour of an extended late breakfast, and wondered aimlessly through the streets of Florence. Everything was so beautiful!
He felt odd without his work. It was delightful to sleep next to Maurice every night without the need of getting up at three in the morning; he loved it and felt relaxed and rested, as he hadn’t in years. It was wonderful to make lazy, sleepy love in the morning and then shower together. But he wasn’t used to so much rest and it gave him a strange feeling of guilt.
He asked for tea. Italian coffee was extremely strong, and extremely bitter, poisonous to his taste, really. Alec was a tea man. He leaned back in his chair, checked his watch for the time, and closed his eyes for a moment, remembering little things about Maurice, images he had collected in his memory from their years together, little details he alone had noticed, a thing he always did when he felt good.
Maurice with shining eyes, smiling mysteriously, just before they left their rented rooms in London for the last time, opening a small cardboard box to reveal a gold wedding band inside, slipping it on Alec’s finger and whispering in his ear «With this ring I thee wed».
Maurice leading him and Giovanna around the house before renting it, to be sure they loved it as much as he did.
Maurice sitting on the floor, next to Julie’s mother, his hand on her swollen belly, and a look of complete bewilderment and wonder at the feeling of the baby moving inside.
Maurice in his blue pyjamas, walking softly with baby Julie in his arms, humming random bits of Mozart and Beethoven to lull her to sleep.
Maurice on a stifling summer night, fast asleep on a rug in the patio, with Julie, wearing nothing but a nappy, sleeping peacefully, sprawled on his chest, like a pink frog.
Maurice bending over their bed to change Julie’s nappy, seriously talking to her about how pretty she was and how wonderful it would be when she went to Cambridge.
Maurice staring out of the window, eyes unfocused, and turning around to face Alec, in tears just because their life had turned out to be so wonderful.
- A penny for your thoughts! – Maurice had arrived and caught him vaguely smiling.
- Oh, I’ll give them for free. I was thinking of you…
- I’m a lucky man, then. You looked positively dreamy. What are you having?
- You know me… Tea. Coffee here makes me nervous.
- Too hot for tea! – he signalled the waiter – Bring me a Tom Collins, please! The Italians chill the beer to such senseless coldness it loses all taste…
- That’s mankind for you! They say we drink warm beer…! I’ll stick to my tea, it’s familiar. So, anything came out of that lunch of yours?
Maurice thanked the waiter that had just brought him his drink before answering.
- Oh, yes, most definitely. He was the right man. Saved a load of trouble to the chap who asked me to come here, so it paid for our journey and stay. Not only that but he introduced me to a Russian… never mind, it’s too dull for words. It paid, handsomely. So I got a little light headed and I made two audacious investments… Well, one really, the other was just an extravagant buy.
- Oh, God! I’m even afraid to ask… And to think I used to joke about HMS Scoundrel! Now it’s Rogue Brothers Inc., or is it Crook & Co.?
- This particular fellow, I think he would fall under the Rogue Brothers Inc. label, because he actually has a brother… –- Maurice answered with the most serious face he could concoct – But you should be asking about my investment. Or don’t you care how I use our money?
Alec lifted his cup before answering.
- I trust you. You know about business and money. It’s even kind of scary how good you are at that. Me, I just bandage broken arms and help deliver babies… –- he put down his cup, brushing Maurice’s hand as if by chance –- Do tell me about it, you’re dying to…
- I bought a painting. It’s really a shot in the dark, I know nothing about painting and this painter isn’t very valued…
- But you liked it?
- I did. It was an instant passion. You must know the way my instant passions work…
- Don’t I just! If the painting has a ticket to the Argentine, he’d better forget it, for it’s not going to happen…
They both smiled. There were no English in sight, and they could talk in absolute peace. Florence was teeming with them but, by that hour, they were all doing something else apparently.
- You don’t regret it, though…
- Maurice, if I didn’t know you, if I had never met you till now, I’d fall in love with you this instant. That’s how much I regret it… And to be perfectly honest, I had an instant passion for you right from the first moment… Now tell me all about that painting, since I’m going to share you with it…
- It’s a small landscape. All ochres and greens, just a dash of blue sea, reminds me so much of home…! By an Italian named Giovanni Fattori.
- And you say he isn’t a very valued artist… Is it safe, or just a whim?
- Art is a safe investment most of the time. In addition, it’s beautiful, and you can actually enjoy it. I mean, the safest investments, as I told you before, they just sit in a safe, and you can never be really certain about where they come from. Even I have some doubts about that. We have a nice stash of those by the way, all nice and cosy up in the Alps, just to keep on the safe side.
- You scare me… I’m not sure I want to know.
Maurice downed half of his tall glass. He said nothing, letting Alec breathe and take in his words. They had a kind of unspoken agreement: when Alec said enough, it was enough. Maurice tried to keep the worst bits of what he actually did from him. It wasn’t one hundred per cent risk free, and it was never clear. But it wasn’t illegal either, just dubious. He never acted against the law, only around the law, sometimes around the outside of it. He took great care not to tread on the red lines he’d set on himself – no people, no drugs, more recently no guns, harm as little as possible and assure himself that the victims deserved to be harmed at least a bit. Still, he was aware of the moral implications and of how that disturbed Alec’s keen sense of right and wrong. His own morals, as far as money was concerned, were rather flexible. The people who required his services were despicable and he felt no remorse about making them pay.
- I won’t tell you then. – he finally said, in his lowest and most persuasive voice – I just want you to be certain that no decent human being was harmed, though a few moguls may find themselves in a pretty tight spot soon. It’s just bad luck for them, they’ll bounce as they always do, and I cannot say I’ll lose sleep over it... Anyway, the man told me that, if I actually want to start collecting paintings, I should go to Wien and Paris. Maybe next time, what do you say?
They finished their drinks, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the Uffizi, admiring paintings. Maurice had been there before, with Clive, back in ’12, and had learned from his friend something about Art. How to look, what to look for, that kind of things. Back then, he had been so focused on Clive he hadn’t actually seen much, and remembered even less. Now, beauty came to him. He made no effort; he just looked with an open mind and no preconceived ideas. The colours, the shapes, the magnificence or the simplicity of each painting met his eyes, and he took it in naturally. In a way, he had grown better out of Clive’s influence he now perceived to have been rather conventional, and slightly patronizing.
They wondered through the rooms, admiring, stopping in front of one or other piece, hardly speaking.
- That’s intense… – was Alec’s remark, in front of a big canvas where two young women held down a man, while one of them slit his throat.
- God! – Maurice walked back a few steps to look better.
The painting was mostly dark, but the people, brought out of that darkness by strong light, had a golden skin tone. The clothes were in red and white; one piece of clothing was yellow, and the blood spurted red from the cut. That complete contrast gave the whole thing an amazing living, breathing quality. The physical strain was evident; they could almost feel the heat of the living bodies, smell the blood and the sweat, hear them gasping for air, and taste the fear and the pain of the dying man. That was a terrible moment, captured not only in colour and in light, but seeming to touch every sense. Most terrifying of it all was that, in spite of the violence of the depicted scene, both women seemed unmoved by it, just calmly absorbed in their task.
- This is something! I don’t think I could actually live in the same room with it, but it’s amazing! Now don’t go imagining the one I bought is anything like this… It’s just a small landscape, rather soothing. This is mind blowing!
Alec was reading the small label on the wall.
- Maurice, it was a woman… my God, a woman painted this!
- Women can do anything, Alec. You know that! Men can too, and you know that as well.
- I don’t know… it looks so extreme… so scary… and look at her. She’s killing that poor bastard, and she looks so serene, like it is something she has to do. She is completely focused, but calm as anything…
They walked out of the Uffizi, still talking about that painting. It had been a deeply unsettling experience. They were still discussing it over diner.
- There must be a purpose in painting such a disturbing scene. I mean, it is not ornamental, you yourself said you wouldn’t live in the same house with it; it cannot be the sharing of an intimate desire…
- How do you know that? Have you never felt like killing anyone?
- Oh, I have! In a mad moment of rage, maybe… but never like that. I never imagined myself taking a knife, and slitting another man’s throat with that coolness. What could have possessed that woman to use such a fine skill to paint that?
- I don’t know. Maybe she had a mad moment of rage too. I may try to find a book about her if you want. There weren’t many woman painters so there must be something written about her…
- Yes, please. I am curious about it now.
Maurice finished his dessert before going on. Italian ice creams were absolutely luscious!
- I have a faint recollection of Clive saying the baroque paintings in the catholic countries were supposed to be theatrical. Maybe this painting is supposed to be like Greek tragedies: you identify with the character, suffer a thousand deaths and it cleanses your soul; you leave the theatre completely drained and clean.
- I’ll pass, thank you!
- Now, the landscape I bought is completely different. You’ll love it, I’m certain. Let us go up to have a look. Julie will love it too.
He smiled, thinking of her.
- I’ve sent her a postcard. – Alec said – I miss her! Don’t get the wrong idea, I love having you all to myself, waking up late, and living la dolce vita, but I miss home, I miss Giovanna and the boys, and Julie… why, I even miss work!
They were standing by the door of their hotel room. Maurice opened it to let them both in, closed it again and pressed Alec against the wall to kiss him.
- I know. I feel a bit guilty to keep you away from your routines. I know you prefer a calm life. But I couldn’t stand the idea of two weeks without you. I’d go mad! – he searched in his pocket for something – Oh, I almost forgot! I bought you something. It’s terribly out of fashion, yet …
He produced a small blue leather box. When Alec opened it, something sparkled inside. It was an amazing gold pendant. The gold looked smooth and soft as if it had been stretched by hand, around a glittering opal surrounded by two green enamel leafs and crowned by several blue enamel dots. Alec was dumbfounded.
- Oh Maurice, it’s beautiful. It really is! But it’s a girl’s thing, isn’t it?
Maurice smiled again, unbuttoning Alec’s cream coloured linen shirt.
- You may give it to Julie, when she is old enough to use it. But first I want to see it on you…
The picture that captured their imagination is this amazing Judith by Artemisia Gentileschi